Giving a damn: how to figure out the stuff that matters

Clinical psychologist and ACT therapist, Ben Sedley, has spent years working on young people’s understanding of mental health. In his new book, Stuff That Sucks, he aims to help adolescents deal with painful emotions. We asked him to share his thoughts on values.

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Remember when you were sitting in Values Class at school, debating the meaning of life and…


Wait, what did you say? Your school never taught values? You were never encouraged to discuss the meaning of life or the point of it all? You just studied algebra and poetry and rocks and then somehow by the end of school, you were expected to know what you wanted to do with life and why? Or maybe you went to one of those schools where they told you what your values were supposed to be, whether they felt true to you or not.


These days there are so many options about what you can do and where you can do it. It can be terrifying to make a choice. Paralysing, even. Sometimes there are so many directions you could go in that it feels safer and easier to try to stay where you are and not move at all.


But of course, that doesn’t work. Even if you’re not yet sure what your values are, the world around you doesn’t let you stay still. Instead the word ‘values’ gets thrown around a lot. We hear about ‘corporate values’ or ‘family values’ or the ‘value of objects’. But it feels like there isn’t enough discussion about what values really are.


And when we do talk about values we often end up resorting to big fluffy words like ‘respect’ or ‘love’ or ‘trust’ or other words that sound great, but can feel so big that they become meaningless or difficult to hold on to.


When I talk about values, I mean the stuff that really matters to you. Once you get past all your judgemental or critical thoughts and passing emotions, what is left?


I spend lots of my time talking to people about their values, and they frequently mention things like friends, family, relationships, learning, trying new things, creativity, animals, the environment, social justice, hobbies, or spirituality.


Do any of these things have meaning for you? Are there other things that you value more?


Why should you even care?


Because values are what we care about. They give us a direction to move in.


If we don’t know what direction we want to move in, then we keep moving anyway but have no idea if we’re getting any closer to where we want to be.


Values are also important because everyone else tries to push their values on you. Parents, friends, school, government and big corporations all want you to move in directions that they value. If you don’t know what you value then you’ll get pushed in other people’s directions. Being pushed all the time can hurt a lot.


So I challenge you all to figure out what you care about. And then care about it. Take a step today in the direction you value.

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Ben Sedley is the author of Stuff That Sucks


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